Synching Picking Strokes with Beats

Question by Ulrich
(Hamburg, Germany)

Hi Mark!

Your’e such a wonderful teacher, I learned a hell of a lot from your youtube clips. Just a lot more accessible than almost all of the other youtube lessons, especially for a intermediate player.

I posted this question below a youtube clip, but repost it here as it seems a more appropriate place:

I’m struggling with my bebop/ swing feel and my timing, and was wondering whether you would suggest synchronizing downstrokes with downbeats and upstrokes with upbeats. I heard some people suggesting that and I gave it a try, but at first it seems a bit unusual and actually quite hard to do for me, as I was taught to use strict alternate picking up to now….

Maybe you could give me your thoughts on that…

Thanks alot for sharing your knowledge!!

Best, Ulrich

M-A’s Answer:

Hello Ulrich,

Thank you for the nice words. Once again, I’m glad the website (and its content) can help you improve your jazz guitar playing.

Your question is extremely relevant and I’m surprised I’ve never discussed this matter on the website yet. The simple answer is: yes! At least in practice, you have to pay attention to the picking strokes. Synchronizing the pick with the beats is important not only for time/timing issues but also in jazz guitar phrasing.


First Exercise

Let’s start with a simple example (play and count at the same time):

Play a C6 arpeggio (C E G A) in quarter notes : all downstrokes (on BEATS “1 2 3 4”)

Then play a D diminished 7th arpeggio (D F Ab B) on upbeats : all upstrokes (on BEATS “and, and, and, and”)

By mixing the above two examples we get the C “major bebop” scale :

C D E F G G# A B | C

Play and count like this:

1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & | 1

This is alternate picking at its best!

Now imagine we played the same scale but omitting the first note:

D E F G G# A B C

A “strict alternate” method (from rock guitar playing) would have you start with a downstroke! In the context, it doesn’t make sense since the first note “D”, is on an upbeat:

D E F G G# A B | C

Play and count like this

(1) & 2 & 3 & 4 & | 1

You have start the scale on “D” note with an upstroke (and finally “land” on C on the next “1” with a downstroke)

It’s, in fact, a physical way for you to “keep your place” in time. It keeps the picking hand “in synch” with the original arpeggio (first example) in quarter notes. (for any scale!) It’s beyond alternate picking. It’s even more strict (!) than what you are doing right now! We could call it “synchro-alternate” picking. With practice and some time, it will begin to feel natural.


Picking Hand Metaphor

Here’s a beautiful metaphor:

Consider that your hand is a “picking strokes machine” : whether you play a note or not, the pick keeps the same “up down” motion for downbeats and upbeats. You can jump in and out of playing and it will always maintain the same direction. Now, try to play the C “major bebop” scale again (or any other scale that has 8 notes…)

First, play every note, then try to leave out the some notes on specific beats.


C D E (F) G G# A B C
(don’t play the F)

Practice this exercise slowly and remove more and more notes to the scale. The picking hand should have a strict “up down” motion as if it is picking everything … but it’s not!


Exceptions in Context

Of course, once you master that simple concept, you will make obvious exceptions to fit the context. It’s always a matter of context. For example, you may want to “dig in” with all downstrokes for a more aggressive passage. To better hear/feel/see those exceptions, you should try and break the rules on purpose! (so you can feel the difference)



Finally, I recommend you practice this picking method as slow as possible. If it’s new for you, take it very slow at first. And I mean SLOW! Let’s say you wanted to play that exercise for me very slowly. Imagine me (or any teacher) say to you : “Ok good. Now do it twice as slow.” That’s more like it!

It has to be so easy you get bored… then you speed it up a little. If you make mistakes, slow down again. It’s the only way your body/ears will REALLY internalize the sounds and motions of the picking strokes.

I hope this helps,
Practice Well,



Old Comments for Synching Picking Strokes with Beats

Aug 31, 2010
The metronome….
by: Anonymous

Hi Marc,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

For me practicing with the metronome keeps the pulse in my picking.

One exercise I used heavily was to begin the G major (one can use any key) scale on the low E string and pick alternating through two octaves and back, but using the down pick to down pick when moving down a string and up pick to up pick when moving up a string. It takes three times through the two octaves to return to the original picking pattern! It’s a great way to expose ones picking to ever changing picking patterns.

Thank you again for taking the time to answer.

Have Peace

Aug 28, 2010
Bebop picking…
by: GuitarSlngr


I love your posts, but this time…

I have through much practice learned to follow a down pick with another down pick when going down a string and to follow an up pick with another up pick when going up a string. This has greatly improved my accuracy (and speed as well)

How would you reconcile this in light of your comments in this thread?

Duffy Doherty


[Comment by webmaster :]

Hello Duffy,

Oh! That’s a hard one!

To be really honest, I also use the technique you’re describing when learning intricate passages. Sometimes I just have no choice if I need speed …

… but I still consider this technique as an “exception” for me. My pick is mostly (say 80%) synchronized with the beats and it helps me.

To reconcile your approach with mine I would have to say : You have other means of keeping your place in time (and they’re not pick-related).

What do you think?


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